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The role of grade sensitivity in explaining the gender imbalance in undergraduate economics


  • Rask, Kevin
  • Tiefenthaler, Jill


There is a gender imbalance in undergraduate economics departments with most departments educating a strong majority of young men. This imbalance has led many economists to ponder the question of why relatively few women choose to take courses and major in economics. Our hypothesis is that the gender imbalance in undergraduate economics, particularly at institutions with traditional liberal arts curriculums, is partly explained by women's greater sensitivity to grades, particularly lower grades. Students choose their majors based on both their interests and their abilities. The literature indicates that the grade a student receives in an introductory class relative to grades received in other departments is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not the student chooses to enroll in more courses in the discipline. However, our hypothesis is that men who take economics courses are less responsive to this signal than are women. As a result, men who do poorly in economics are more likely to continue in the major. Women who do poorly, in contrast, are more likely to abandon economics and pursue a different major. Our results, generated from 16 years of data from a liberal arts college where economics is one of the most popular majors, support this hypothesis. The overall economics GPA for female majors is significantly higher than that for males and male students dominate the bottom of the grade distribution. Finally, results from the estimation of a series of selection models of the decision to take more economics courses indicate that, holding other characteristics constant, women are more responsive to the relative grade received than are men.

Suggested Citation

  • Rask, Kevin & Tiefenthaler, Jill, 2008. "The role of grade sensitivity in explaining the gender imbalance in undergraduate economics," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 27(6), pages 676-687, December.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:ecoedu:v:27:y:2008:i:6:p:676-687

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Brandice J. Canes & Harvey S. Rosen, 1994. "Following in Her Footsteps? Women's Choices of College Majors and Faculty Gender Composition," NBER Working Papers 4874, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Ann L. Owen & Elizabeth J. Jensen, 2000. "Why Are Women Such Reluctant Economists? Evidence from Liberal Arts Colleges," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(2), pages 466-470, May.
    3. Richard Sabot & John Wakeman-Linn, 1991. "Grade Inflation and Course Choice," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 5(1), pages 159-170, Winter.
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    Cited by:

    1. Seeun Jung & Radu Vranceanu, 2015. "Gender Interaction in Teams: Experimental Evidence on Performance and Punishment Behavior," PSE Working Papers hal-01171161, HAL.
    2. Ehrenberg, Ronald G., 2010. "Analyzing the factors that influence persistence rates in STEM field, majors: Introduction to the symposium," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 29(6), pages 888-891, December.
    3. Ann L. Owen, 2011. "Student Characteristics, Behavior, and Performance in Economics Classes," Chapters,in: International Handbook on Teaching and Learning Economics, chapter 32 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    4. Fischer, Stefanie, 2017. "The downside of good peers: How classroom composition differentially affects men's and women's STEM persistence," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 46(C), pages 211-226.
    5. Rask, Kevin, 2010. "Attrition in STEM fields at a liberal arts college: The importance of grades and pre-collegiate preferences," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 29(6), pages 892-900, December.
    6. Ost, Ben, 2010. "The role of peers and grades in determining major persistence in the sciences," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 29(6), pages 923-934, December.
    7. Griffith, Amanda L., 2010. "Persistence of women and minorities in STEM field majors: Is it the school that matters?," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 29(6), pages 911-922, December.


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